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A subtle and sober movie about resistance based on a true story with the fine French touch.
At the launch of WWII in France, Germans, Austrians and axis allies living in France are sent to the concentration camp of Les Milles by the French government. In this camp, people from all background are forced to live together, may they be Nazis, spies, diplomats, visitors and refugees being artists, Jews, political dissidents, intellectuals or anyone in disagreement which fled the oppressing Nazi regime after Hitler's accession to power.
Based on a true story, the movie is a fiction which brilliantly and modestly portrays the camp everyday life and its intricacies if not open conflicts when the prisoners are bound to be confronting their views. The camp at Les Milles really existed and is located near Marseille. It happened to welcome a certain number of famous figures such as artists, writers, and scientists. In the movie, they happened to attract the attention of an American journalist, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, only concerned about getting an interview with them and later saving their lives.
Jean-Pierre Marielle plays a "more than true" captain Charles Perrochon who happens to be incapable to fight the war on the front against the Germans since, during WWI, he lost a lung as the result of gazing. He is then given the command of Les Milles. The movie is very efficient at rendering the hardships of keeping together a concentration camp with inadequate resources when not trained for this kind of duty. There are even scenes which show the director's ability to bring funny tones in this situation which surely had its share of awkward moments. Funny scenes have brought some energy to this slow paced movie which surely resembles concentration camp life and will displease people wishing an action packed war movie with a lot of haemoglobin or explosions. It is somehow more philosophical and intelligent since violence rarely erupts in the movie but interesting discussions do occur now and then.
However, as the German continue to conquer France rapidly, the French government does not show honour and pride in their compromised bargaining when it comes to the fate of people considered undesirable by the Nazis, and the movie will show a disillusioned General wishing to save himself, excellently played by Philippe Noiret, which will accept to return the prisoners to the French police, meaning sending several people to their sure deaths as traitors to the Nazi regime.
But, maybe this what this movie is all about, a bunch of people running around to save their lives as the "debacle", the rapid conquest of their country by the German army, approaches. Only a few keep their true sense of values in the face of danger and this maybe a very honest discussion telling us about ourselves.It is interesting to note that a higher percentage of Jews survived in France than in any other German-occupied country.
However, there is the, often overlooked, other side of the medal where a large number of ordinary people remained faithful to their values and became heroes. The film shows us how normal, undistinguished Frenchmen, military personnel, who retained a sense of decency in the face of loosing a dreadful war becoming a human disaster. We can see how Perrochon's sense of human dignity called by his military code of honour led to disobedience to official Army orders to surrender their prisoners and ultimately to true heroism sheltering many lives, by organising the Freedom Train against all odds, rules and regulations. With the help of his reluctant officers, the commandant requisitions a train in a desperate attempt to shuttle his prisoners to Bayonne, where hopefully a freighter will take them to free Morocco. Moreover, access to freedom will not only be secured to a few selected elite as wished by the journalist but to all men seeking refuge thereby showing a universal sense of human dignity.
The movie finds a much more active pace with suspense in the second part when the train journeys through France trying to stay away from all perils and trying to reach destination where a ship awaits for taking the runaways to Casablanca.
I really think that this movie shows that the French have a lot to look at with pride when it comes to the fate of the people in danger during that very ugly war.
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